On Monday night, Aaron Judge managed to turn a jaded 34-year old man into a kid with the magic of a baseball bat and make the Home Run Derby a spectacle again.
That 34-year old, of course, is me. I was left breathless watching the Yankees’ rookie bomber step into a spot where many a prematurely anointed star have failed and effortlessly rise to the occasion.
Judge’s first-round opponent Justin Bour mashed 22 home runs, applying massive amounts of pressure to the first time participant that was also the co-favorite. While Bour was putting the finishing touches on a virtuoso performance of his own, Judge was snapping selfies with the other All-Stars on the field, apparently unbothered by the task ahead of him.
With just over two minutes left in the round, he still trailed 22 to 9. Judge took the one timeout he was allotted, got his mind right, and proceeded to put on one of the greatest exhibitions of athletic prowess I’ve seen since Vince Carter 17 years ago in the NBA Dunk Contest. Like a prime Carter, Judge just did things that made you just sit back, take notice and if you weren’t careful, have your jaw repeatedly hitting the floor with what he did.
Take the bomb that hit the lights, that inexplicably was disallowed as a home run. It was something that you’d think you’d see on Ken Griffey Baseball for the SNES, not in real life (and had he broken his custom bat over his knee like one of the animations, it’d have been cooler). Never mind the fact that Judge hit essentially 14 home runs in nearly a two-minute span to get out of just the first round, spraying the ball effortlessly to all fields. One could observe that Judge wasn’t even hitting a good portion of the homers in that first round off the sweet spot of the bat and they were still flying into the stands.
But when he got to the second round and it was clear that some of the other competitors were fading from fatigue, Judge kept pounding the gavel with 3 homers in that round over 500 feet (including one that traveled 513 feet).
Judge’s peers couldn’t even believe what he was doing, and, at that point, any shred of cynicism had to be eradicated (unless you happened to be a Red Sox fan).
We were all just rooting for the kid to take it to the next level, which, of course, Judge did in the finals where his opponent Miguel Sano just had nothing left in the tank and viewers got to witness the arrival of baseball’s next cult hero. The only complaint about that final round was that you wished he did the whole four minutes just to see if he’d get to 20 homers again. If for nothing else than to show that this was his event, his moment, and there was nothing anyone this side of prime Barry Bonds could do to take it from him.
For full disclosure, I am a life-long Yankees fan. I grew up during the years of the Core Four of Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettite. Those four won championships and, together, dominated the game, but I never grew up with one singular force that could legitimately turn the game on it’s ear with the bat like Judge could. Jeter was consistently clutch. Rivera was untouchable in the eight and ninth innings in the postseason. Pettite seemed to be the guy you relied upon to give you those big outings, and Posada, outside of 2003 against Pedro, was the Ringo Starr of the group, keeping everyone in rhythm from just outside the spotlight.
But Judge is a throwback to the Yankees my father and my late great-uncle would talk about. They used to tell these Paul Bunyan-esque tall tales about Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio. Seeing Judge mash baseballs through the first half of this season takes me to a place where that inner cynic that has developed over the years is silenced and all that is left are the golden adolescent feelings S.E Hinton once wrote about.
Last night Aaron Judge decreed the world was his for the taking, and, at least for one night, it was.